At the age of 40, Crystal Kovacs rediscovered cycling, which has come to transform her life. During her first rides back, she would pedal ten miles and worry about making up the last hill home. Over the next five years, her love of bikes grew and reshaped her life and redefined what she thought possible.
A chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance - that line played over and over in my mind as I rode through areas with the reddest dirt you can imagine and lush tropical landscapes while navigating my way through Kenya. When a friend asked me back in March to go with her to Africa this summer, I had no idea how much I would end up needing the trip, how life-changing it would be, and how hard processing it afterward would be. It turns out all three were huge and I would not change any of it for the world.
The purpose of this trip was to ride across Kenya, from Nairobi to Diani while visiting local chapters of Zawadisha – an organization that funds microloans for Kenyan women in local communities. We had a group of 16 women from across the United States and the trip itself was seven days of riding with 60-100km covered per day, along with spending two days in the village of Mangu. We raised money along the way via donation and ended up delivering $26,000 to the Zawadisha organization at the end of our trip.
I had no way of knowing when I committed to this trip back in March what my life had in store for me personally. The last conversation that I had with my mom before she was killed in a car accident was that I was going to Africa. Little did I know that this trip would be the way I would sort through that pain. But I do believe that the Universe had a plan, and I was given this opportunity to ride somewhere extremely special, see pride in a way I never had before, and take a deep look into my own soul.
As we visited each village, we met some of the women we were fundraising for, and these were the most personal, most memorable experiences of the trip. We got to know these women, visited their homes and meeting areas, danced with them, and witnessed great joy. At one point, while we were making baskets, Halmima, my basket-making teacher, reached over and rubbed my white arm. The connection was instant and one I will never forget.
Out on the road, my thoughts and what I perceived as necessities soon changed as well. We would often ride thirty miles before lunch, get there thinking that we had to load up on calories because we were hungry and thirsty from the efforts on the bike. And while that was important, it became uncomfortable as we stood shoving food and water into our mouths and then looked around to see people who were truly hungry and thirsty. Suddenly chewing became less easy, talk became more hushed, and our thoughts started to shift.
While this trip allowed me to take the time that I so badly needed for myself and my personal grief, it ended up opening my eyes to other challenges and serious questions as well. I had never seen poverty or hunger like I saw it in Kenya. I also never realized the amount of water we waste every day in the United States and how we think of it as a commodity that we will always have. What I thought was a trip that would be hard physically (and it was) turned out to be a trip that was hard mentally.
The trip also helped me realize that there is responsibility within our lives. We can help others by supporting organizations that make a difference to those in need. I’m proud we were able to raise $26,000 for Zawadisha and that this money will be delivered via micro-loans directly to the communities we visited. The micro-loan program increases access to sustainable products and provides opportunities for the recipients to improve their own lives, their families' lives, and their communities.
There are numerous ways in which a trip can be successful. Sometimes we ride high miles, meet new people, visit a new place, see something that changes us forever, and if we are lucky, we bring all of that home with us. This trip was all of that and more for me. I rode my bike from the capital of Kenya to the sands of the Indian Ocean with a total group of strangers. But the part that was most important was the parts in between. I learned that I am blessed beyond comprehension. I have a lifestyle where I do not have to work all day simply to survive. I have running water that turns on with the flick of a handle, and the water that comes out is hot. We have a refrigerator and freezer that keeps our food cold and safe for us to eat. All of these were luxuries I thought nothing of before I left home.
There is no better way to see a culture than on the back of a bike. There is also no better way to process grief or trauma than doing what you love in a safe environment. Add elephants, lions, and the sweetest children you will ever meet to the trip, and this quickly became the trip of a lifetime. I came home with a renewed spirit, an eagerness to help others understand a place that I now love, and a bike that will forever be my best medicine.